Up to this point, it's been somewhat difficult to listen to the broke-down electro-pop of Handsome Furs without imagining what Dan Boeckner's more established band, Wolf Parade, might do to elaborate on it. Though the projects sound very different, his songs for both bands rely heavily on his bleary-eyed lyricism and jagged guitar chug. But as Boeckner could tell you, there's an easy way to get people to stop comparing your side project to your main gig: just break up the latter.
But it's not just Wolf Parade's recently announced "indefinite hiatus" that casts Sound Kaptial as Handsome Furs' most passionate, committed album to date. Rather, by taking the emphasis off of Boeckner's guitars and giving greater shine to wife Alexei Perry's neon-bright keyboard lines and woofer-busting beats, Handsome Furs present themselves as a genuine, ready-for-the-floor synth-pop band rather than a frazzled rock act that happens to use synthesizers. With new wave confections like "Memories of the Future" and "What About Us", Sound Kapital effectively conjures an alternate 1980s where Bruce Springsteen didn't just tinker around with synths and drum machines on occasion, but actually tried to make a full-on Depeche Mode record.
However, Sound Kapital isn't so much an 80s throwback in sound as in its spirit of sincerity. A handful of songs on the record were inspired by the Furs' 2010 visit to Burma, where they performed alongside bands who were quite literally underground, forced to perform out of sight of the oppressive local authorities, with minimal access to electricity, let alone recording technology. Given that Boeckner's always been drawn to the struggle of the underdog, the experience of being around people who routinely risked incarceration just to play their music naturally had a profound effect on his songwriting; the opening song is built around a click-tracked chant-- "When I get back home/ I won't be the same no more"-- that effectively serves as a promise to put aside petty, material-world concerns.
And rather than deal in general, impressionistic images of hearts on fire and shining lights, the album's centerpiece song, "Serve the People", pays tribute to the Burmese band Side Effect with street-level scenes of "kids... making noise with their generators on till the cops say, 'move along.'" It's the sort of arm-swaying anthem you could easily imagine the Furs' Montreal mates Arcade Fire turning into a Coachella-rocking showstopper. But the humbly lo-tech take-- all shuffling drum-machine breaks and squelching frequencies-- feels very true to the environment that inspired it, where music is exchanged via pirate radio and the power can be suddenly cut at any moment. The more frenzied companion track "Cheap Music" reframes the same scene, but downplays the overarching themes of valor and perseverance to convey the illicit, punk-rock thrill of hearing "a thousand lonely kids making noise in the basement."
Therein lies Sound Kapital's greatest success: Handsome Furs no longer feel like a stripped-down antidote to Wolf Parade, but more like a band that's able to execute progressively grander, emotionally resonant ideas while staying within their limited means. And nowhere is that more evident than on Sound Kapital's urgent, feedback-swathed closer "No Feelings", which, despite its seven-minute sprawl, counts as Boeckner's most immediately affecting performance since Wolf Parade's "Shine a Light". The song sees Boeckner returning to familiar concerns (emotional ennui, self-doubt) but as it reemerges from a My Bloody Valentine-like miasma for a final sprint to the finish, Boeckner's repeated claims that he's "got no feeling" provide Sound Kapital with a rare moment of irony: Everything about this song-- and this entire album, for that matter-- suggests this heart's still got a lot left to burn.